By Peter Kempner
New York Daily News
As our attention again turns towards the brave individuals who served in the armed forces, it is time for us to address a significant question: How do we ensure our veterans are able to access their rightful benefits?
Many Americans assume that when service members return home with injuries, they are automatically connected with their Veterans Affairs disability benefits. They do not realize that these veterans must first navigate a complex and inconsistent administrative process.
The system is rife with delays, which all too often leave vets and their families in desperate financial straits as they wait for answers. And because of a lack of qualified advocates practicing veterans law, most end up fighting this battle on their own.
Our veterans deserve competent and experienced attorneys to help them.
According to a New York City Bar Association report published earlier this year, an estimated 24% of veterans nationally are receiving disability benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. In New York, that number is less than 17%. These statistics suggest that tens of thousands of veterans across the state aren’t getting the VA benefits to which they are entitled.
Lawyers from NYLAG’s LegalHealth Women Veterans Clinic at the Bronx VA recently represented a veteran suffering from severe PTSD, depression and anxiety stemming from a brutal rape while she was in the Marines decades ago. She never knew she qualified for VA benefits, believing her injury had to occur during combat for it to “count.”
Her attorney dispelled that myth and assembled a strong application, showing the markers required by the VA to prove her entitlement to benefits. She was awarded the highest level of disability pay from the VA, over $3,000 per month and received significant retroactive benefits. These benefits were life-transforming for this veteran and her family, who had been destitute because of the veteran’s trauma and inability to work.
The State of New York needs to commit support to legal services programs that connect our veterans with their federal disability benefits. The VA benefits system is extremely complicated and, even with recent changes to the appeals process, adequate legal representation is often a necessity. While lawyers have established a proven track record appealing denials of benefits, there are simply not enough of them available to help all of the veterans in need.
New York has already seen the enormous impact of legal advocacy when it comes to helping individuals access federal benefits: The Disability Advocacy Program (“DAP”) has been transformational for disabled New Yorkers and the state budget. Established 35 years ago, DAP provides funding to not-for-profit legal service organizations that assist New Yorkers in obtaining federal benefits from the Social Security Administration.
DAP has had an enormous return on investment, not only allowing disabled New Yorkers to be more financially secure, but boosting the state’s economy with federal dollars being spent in recipients’ local communities. A parallel program for veterans could result in the same success.
Today, New York taxpayers bear the cost of the VA’s failures when veterans and their families must turn to hospitals, shelters and public benefits. Until the state makes a commitment to provide our veterans with the legal assistance they require, New York communities will pay the price and veterans will continue to be deprived of the life-changing benefits they are owed.
Increasing the number of legal advocates ready to assist veterans would also help protect our most vulnerable veterans from scammers. This summer, New York State enacted the Pension Poaching Prevention Act, acknowledging the widespread issue of scammers preying on older and disabled veterans. And while putting in place protections to make it tougher for individuals to take advantage of veterans is an important step, it does not address the root of the problem. As long as there continues to be a lack of competent representatives to assist them, veterans will turn to inexperienced and fraudulent individuals for help.
So, before another Veterans Day passes with far too many of our former service members continuing to struggle, we need our state’s leaders to address this significant problem. How do we ensure our veterans are able to access their rightful benefits? By establishing and meaningfully funding a Veterans Disability Advocacy Program, New York can make great strides towards that goal.
Originally published in New York Daily News on November 11, 2019.